- PARIS (AFP) - An asteroid
big enough to wipe out a major country gave the Earth a close shave Monday,
passing less than twice the distance of the Moon from our planet, astronomers
- The space rock, designated 2001 YB5, measures between
220 and 490 metres (715-1,592 feet) and at its closest point, at 0737 GMT,
hurtled past about 600,000 kilometers (375,000 miles) from the Earth, according
to varying estimates on US and European specialist websites.
- 2001 YB5 was spotted in early December by a Near-Earth
Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) survey telescope on Mount Palomar in California,
NASA said on its Near-Earth Object (NEO) Programme website.
- Although there had been no danger of collision from the
asteroid, experts said the distance was a whisker in cosmic terms.
- "Such an object could literally wipe out a medium-sized
country if it impacted and lead to a global economic meltdown, unless we
were extremely fortunate and it hit somewhere remote," Benny Peiser,
an asteroid expert at Liverpool John Moores University, told AFP by phone.
- Only one other identified asteroid, a rock called 1999
AN10, will come closer, making a flyby on August 7 2027 at about 389,000
kms (243,000 miles), about the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
- An object 220-490 metres (715-1,592 ft) across would
release energy equivalent to hundreds of atomic bombs if it wacked into
- A large object, believed to be up to 10 kilometers (six
miles) long, smashed into Mexico's Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago.
- Scientists believe the object, either a comet or an asteroid,
triggered a firestorm and then a dust cloud that obscured sunlight. It
inflicted lasting climate change that destroyed vegetation and ended the
long reign of the dinosaurs.
- In 1908, an asteroid or comet about 60 metres (200 feet)
long exploded over Siberia with the force of 600 times the Hiroshima bomb,
reducing a 40-km (25-mile) wide patch of forest to matchwood.
- 2001 YB5 has been categorised by NEAT as a "potentially
- Although it poses no danger at all to the Earth at the
moment, that could theoretically change in the future if its orbit around
the Sun is deflected by the gravitational pull of a nearby planet.
- Its trajectory crosses the orbits of Mars, Earth, Venus,
and Mercury, NEAT said.
- Astronomers are becoming increasingly vocal about the
risks of asteroid collision, saying Earth has simply had a long run of
good luck in escaping big cosmic debris for so long.
- NASA's main focus is on identifying asteroids between
one km and 10 kms (0.6 to six miles) across.
- The number of these bruisers was once put at 1,000-2,000,
which translates into a roughly one-percent chance that one of them will
smash into the Earth in the next thousand years. In January 2001, that
estimate was downgraded to 700, plus or minus 230.
- Even so, that leaves the vast majority of space objects,
which are under one km (0.6 miles), still to be detected.
- Noting the belated discovery of 2001 YB5, Peiser said,
"had we discovered that the thing were on a collision course, there
is nothing that we could have done... nothing has been done on planetary
- David Jewitt, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii
at Honolulu, has estimated there is a one-percent statistical chance that
the Earth will be struck by a 300-metre (715-feet) asteroid sometime this
- "Such an impact would deliver a withering 1,000-megatonne
explosion and cause perhaps 100,000 deaths," according to his assessment,
adding that in a densely-populated area, such as the US eastern seaboard
or Western Europe, the fatalities could rise into "tens of millions."
- On January 1, the British government announced it was
setting up a centre in Leicester, central England, to pool information
about potentially hazardous asteroids.
- It will also launch a pilot study to track asteroids
using a telescope on the Canary Islands, in the central-eastern Atlantic.
- New European Centers To Monitor